Agent Orange is one of the most devastating weapons of modern warfare, a chemical which killed or injured an estimated 400,000 people during the Vietnam War -- and now it's being used against the Amazon rainforest. According to officials, ranchers in Brazil have begun spraying the highly toxic herbicide over patches of forest as a covert method to illegally clear foliage, more difficult to detect that chainsaws and tractors. In recent weeks, an aerial survey detected some 440 acres of rainforest that had been sprayed with the compound -- poisoning thousands of trees and an untold number of animals, potentially for generations.
Officials from Brazil's environmental agency IBAMA were first tipped to the illegal clearing by satellite images of the forest in Amazonia; a helicopter flyover in the region later revealed thousands of trees left ash-colored and defoliated by toxic chemicals. IBAMA says that Agent Orange was likely dispersed by aircraft by a yet unidentified rancher to clear the land for pasture because it is more difficult to detect than traditional operations that require chainsaws and tractors.
Last week, in another part of the Amazon, an investigation conducted by the agency uncovered approximately four tons of the highly toxic herbal pesticides hidden in the forest awaiting dispension. If released, the chemicals could have potentially decimated some 7,500 acres of rainforest, killing all the wildlife that resides there and contaminating groundwater. In this case, the individual responsible was identified and now faces fines nearing $1.3 million.
According to a report from Folha de São Paulo, the last time such chemicals were recorded in use by deforesters was in 1999, but officials say dispensing the devastating herbicide may become more common as officials crack down on the most flagrant types of environmental crime.
"They [deforesters] have changed their strategy because, in a short time, more areas of forest can be destroyed with herbicides. Thus, they don't need to mobilize tree-cutting teams and can therefore bypass the supervision of IBAMA," says Jerfferson Lobato of IBAMA.
While Agent Orange was originally designed to clear forest coverage in combat situations, its use became a subject of controversy due to its impact on humans and wildlife. During the Vietnam War, the United States military dispersed 12 million gallons of herbicide, impacting the health of some 3 million, mostly peasant, Vietnamese citizens, and causing birth defects in around 500 thousand children. Additionally, the chemical's effect on the environment have been profound and lasting.
Last month, over three decades after Agent Orange was last used in Vietnam, the US began funding a $38 million decontamination operation there. Meanwhile, in the Brazilian Amazon, the highly toxic chemical was being discovered anew and sprayed over the rainforest.